By Andrew Stone
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An inspector galls

This article is over 14 years, 2 months old
Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has never been at the top of teachers' Christmas card lists.
Issue 342

But its popularity is reaching new depths with the introduction of a harsher inspection framework.

The new criteria use the blunt instrument of exam data to critique schools’ performance. While this has been true to some extent since Ofsted’s Tory-induced inception, it has always in the past been tempered by an awareness of the great challenges facing working class schools. But now the “value-added” progress enabled by teaching and support staff working in the most difficult conditions has been deemed irrelevant.

Eighteen of the 25 Ofsted categories assess raw attainment data, so state schools which serve working class communities face being put in punitive “special measures” because they are deemed to be “inadequate”. Even if they avoid this, there appears to be a “glass ceiling” in which most non-selective schools cannot hope to be more than “satisfactory”. The amount of schools given this grade after two months of the new criteria has doubled to 67 percent.

Children’s secretary Ed Balls prefers to blame the “excuses culture” rather than provide the kind of support that might enable New Labour’s much-trumpeted (but never witnessed) “equality of opportunity”. In January he argued, “Don’t tell me that poverty means low performance… In the end, if there are excuses, we have the power to say that’s totally unacceptable.”

Perhaps he considers it irrelevant when children can’t afford a change of uniform, let alone the private tuition enjoyed by wealthy students, but those of us working at the sharp end don’t. We work long hours and weekends to give the best possible chances for students facing abuse, neglect, deportation and a range of other challenges associated with poverty – such as parents suffering from long-term unemployment or anti-social shift work.

Where some effort has been made to close the disparity of resources between state and private schools, progress has been made.

Child Poverty Action found that nine out of ten of the best results for poor students came in London boroughs, which it attributed to the £40 million extra funding available through London Challenge. To put this support in context, it is only 0.1 percent of the most recent £40 billion bank bailout.

But there is a wider problem of accepting the priorities of a discredited league table system. Every teacher experiences how it distorts provision – how particular students are hot-housed or corralled away from subjects to massage results.

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says that the new Ofsted framework “is clearly DCSF [Department for Children, Schools and Families] policy”. But why would the government want to make more schools likely to fail? Partly to show its credentials to the right wing press as “tough on standards” and also to ensure that Ofsted reports don’t contradict its punitive benchmarks.

The DCSF’s National Challenge “named and shamed” 638 secondary schools in which less than 30 percent of students achieved five “good” GCSEs including English and Maths. But analysis by the National Union of Teachers revealed that Ofsted judged 147 of these schools as “good” and 16 as “outstanding”.

So schools where progress is “satisfactory” will be considered unsatisfactory and put in special measures if raw exam scores are “low”. And “low” will be defined as “significantly below” the national average results. So if national average results improve faster than a particular school then it could be damned despite making an absolute improvement.

The DCSF and Ofsted are inadequate and are failing students. If the NUT and NAHT succeed in ridding us of the bane of primary school SATs tests it will put us in a stronger position to mount our own “national challenge” against the whole Ofsted regime.


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